In His Own Words: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race in America
This month America celebrates black history. Last month, we set aside a day to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.--his tireless work for civil rights and equality for black citizens.
As we do for all our heroes, we ignore Dr. King's shortcomings and focus only on his good works. We turn our real-life heroes into myths, legends greater and simpler than the complex, nuanced individuals they really were.
Today I'm turning my thoughts to another black man whose powerful words describe the reality of America's progress in the civil rights arena: Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his book, Between the World and Me, Coates addresses how far we've come and how far we still have to go.
Here are some of his words which resonated with me, a woman of color who isn't black and isn't "all the way" white. Because, as Coates points out, the subtle distinctions in the color of our skin can still determine how we're perceived and treated by others. In short, Dr. King's dream has yet to come true.
Quotes from Between the World and Me
"...there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much. And it is easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names." (pp. 8-9)
"The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools? [...] The schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. [...] Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them." (pp. 25-27)
"Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body." (p. 28)
"Why were only our heroes nonviolent? [...] The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means." (p. 32)
"Enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains--whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains." (p. 70)
"These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope." (p. 71)
"So that America might justify itself, the story of a black body's destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined." (p. 96)
"To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this." (pp. 98-99)
"All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black." (p. 103)
"I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you become a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world." (p. 108)
"Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism this distortion is intentional. Disembodiment." (p. 114)
"The fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me." (p. 115)
"I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do." (p. 120)